LOUISVILLE — In recent weeks, the decision to award the 2011 Breeders' Cup to Churchill Downs became an easy one for officials of the event.
Shortly after they confirmed Friday that the Louisville track would be hosting the Breeders' Cup for a second consecutive year, speculation began over whether the home of the Kentucky Derby would eventually become the permanent home of Thoroughbred racing's World Championships.
Churchill Downs is already scheduled to host this year's Breeders' Cup Nov. 5-6. It will be a record seventh time for the track.
Churchill joins the Oak Tree Association at Santa Anita Park as the only sites to host the event in back-to-back years. Santa Anita, which was praised for its large media market and entertainment opportunities, hosted in 2008 and 2009.
The Breeders' Cup board debated this year whether to choose a permanent site or institute a set rotation among tracks.
With MI Developments, owner of Santa Anita, recently voiding its contract with the Oak Tree Association and the New York Racing Association needing a $25 million loan from the state to remain in operation, the board held off on any long-term decisions.
"Clearly, things are unsettled in California and, while it's good news for New York racing that the state has recently agreed to fund that $25 million loan, neither of those jurisdictions are anywhere near as stable as Kentucky is right now," said Greg Avioli, president and CEO of Breeders' Cup Ltd. "We never want to take the Breeders' Cup into an unstable environment so I think those were factors. But we made our decision to come to Churchill for a variety of reasons.
"There was not a single reason that jumped out but when you look at the aggregate of them, it was an easy call to make."
Avioli said the next two years could serve as an audition for Churchill Downs in the potential role of permanent host.
The previous six runnings at Churchill averaged an attendance of 73,556 — including the single-day record of 80,452 in 1998.
The last time the event was held at Churchill in 2006, it produced a single-day Breeders' Cup record for on-track handle of $18,259,971.
"This facility is really the best facility to hold the Breeders' Cup in," said Breeders' Cup Chairman Bill Farish. "It's got the best variety of seating at the track; it's got great hospitality.
"... I don't think Churchill has to audition for anything but, certainly, if it's a success here for two years, that will factor into our board looking into it for the future."
Even if the event goes on a rotation, Farish said, it's not likely to include smaller tracks such as Monmouth Park and Lone Star Park — which hosted the event in 2007 and 2004, respectively — because of the drops in handle and attendance that occurred there.
"I personally think the argument for a permanent site outweighs the arguments against it," Farish said. "Really, if you look at the history of Breeders' Cup, when we've gone to these smaller markets like (Lone Star) and Monmouth, there is no real residual positive impact we have. None of those markets thrived in the wake of the Breeders' Cup."
The 2011 Breeders' Cup will be held Nov. 4-5.
Earlier this year, a state law was passed granting the Breeders' Cup a tax break worth up to $1 million should the event be held in Kentucky in either 2011 or 2012.
"The return of the Breeders' Cup ... underscores the importance of the event and our track to life and the economic vitality in the state and region," said Robert Evans, president of Churchill Downs Inc.
This year's event will be Churchill's first since it expanded to two days and 14 races. Avioli did not rule out potential alterations to the format for 2011 but said those decisions would probably come after this year's event.
"We want to give all these races the chance to be fully evaluated, and this year will be the first time that the 14-race, two-day card will be run on a dirt surface," Avioli said. "What the last two years have shown us is, there are definitely some positive factors with being in the market for more than just one year. This now gives us the opportunity to do the same experiment at Churchill."